Teaching doctors: Learning to learn in new ways

In my transition from pure learner (i.e., the med student role) to teacher-learner (i.e., the attending), I’ve actually found myself focusing more on the learner than the teacher part of my dual existence.  Strong learning seems to be requisite to strong teaching, and I am realizing that succeeding on the next level requires some extra meta-cognition, that is, learning to learn in new ways.

Learning to unlearn

In med school, learners amass an incredible amount of new information and master a completely new language. Suffice it to say that “drinking from the firehose” probably understates the reality of undergraduate medical education.

Our schools inculcate lots of so-called “facts” into our students’ fresh minds, and said students suck up these facts like infinitely absorptive sponges. Sure, students often purge the data after cramming for tests, but they inevitably reclaim much of this knowledge over the next several years. And thus, students graduate medical school with their minds encumbered by extraordinary amounts of information to apply to patient care.

This approach unfortunately is faulty in two respects: Memory is imperfect, and facts are not immune to mutability. I have been caught on rounds reciting “facts I learned in medical school” only to have my team discover that almost no reputable sources can corroborate my claims — or even worse, that a reputable source completely refutes them. I cannot always pin down the etiology of my misinformation. I usually blame time’s effect on the faulty memory compartment. More importantly, I make a mental note to condemn that parcel of my brain and vacate it for future use.

My advice: Actively seek out the misinformation in your brain, and purge it. Identify what you thought you’ve learned but isn’t true.

Learning to get answers without the certainty of an answer key

As learners progress through their undergraduate and graduate training, they move from the black-and-white world of correct answers to a landscape of gray zones devoid of an answer key. Students often live and die by “what’s going to be on the test.” Even residents living in the oft-ambiguous world of clinical medicine have some anchor of certainty: the attending’s final word. No matter what shade of correct or incorrect a clinical decision is, the resident can often fall back on what the attending will want.

When there is no longer a judge of correctness — be it the professor, the course director, or the attending — it can be quite unnerving. In this situation, the teacher-learner should remember that “facts” you’ve learned are never truths. They are half-truths with varying degrees of evidence that can be variably applied to actual clinical scenarios.

My advice: When faced with situations where a correct answer cannot be known, gather all the information you can to make an informed decision. Remember that the teacher-learner becomes a de facto answer key, but be ready to adjust the grading rubric too.

Learning to learn critically

The learner role affords a certain luxury to students and residents: leaving all the critical thinking to the experts. For example, when you rotate on your cardiology rotation, you must recite gospel verses like, “Give an ACE inhibitor and β-blocker for everyone with reduced ejection fraction.” But what about that latest study on angiotensin receptor neprilysin inhibitors? Well, you get to leave the interpretation and its application to real-life settings to the renowned cardiology attending.

I am not saying that residents aren’t expect to think critically. But they often don’t have the time to learn critically: to analyze the latest developments and consider how to integrate the evidence into practice. Instead, students and residents defer or default to the experts (and integrate this information as “facts” into their brain; see sections above).

Now imagine what happens when no expert is present. The teacher-learner needs to be prepared to face situations in which he or she might be the one distilling very complicated data into spoon-fed “pearls.” The teacher-learner also needs to decide how much stock to put into his or her own truths.

My advice: Imagine how you would apply newly acquired knowledge to your patients before actually doing so. Someday you will not have an expert to lead the way, and you never know when your trainees might look to you for guidance.

Paul Bergl is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Insights on Residency Training, a part of NEJM Journal Watch.

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